Stonewall, located on Christopher Street, was one of the largest operating gay bars in New York in the 60’s. It was one of the dingier and dark bars with health code violations abounding, serving a wide range of clientele, accounts of whom vary. Some like to claim that Stonewall was a bar that had gay people of every type, middle class white males, drag queens, homeless youth, the kind of people who couldn’t get in anywhere else. And other assert that it was mostly middle class white men and few others were really allowed in. Despite its all-around seediness, Stonewall was a ‘Mecca’ for the community, a place to temporarily escape the streets.
Stonewall and the Mafia
Many gay bars at this time were owned and operated by local crime families. Many were afraid that operating a gay bar meant that they would be facing constant closures, so the mafia stepped in. They served watered down drinks and charged high prices for them, and a lot of the liquor came in by illegal means, and also sold other illegal items and services. The mafia would pay off the police department to cut down on the number of raids, receive heads up when raids were going to happen, and even disregard the lack of liquor license.
June 28, 1969 – The Stonewall Riot
With the mayoral reelection campaigns in full swing, the summer of 1969 saw an even larger increase on the number of gay bar raids and tensions were rising in the LGBT community. Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, officers entered Stonewall, without any notice, to raid the bar. They had blockaded the doors and windows and ordered the patrons to produce their IDs. There had just been a raid a few days previously, and many patrons were particularly upset and resisted. Officers began arresting people left and right while a crowd started to form outside the bar, becoming rowdier with each passing minute. The rough treatment of the patrons, manhandling them and forcing them into the wagons to be taken away made the crowd angry, and they began throwing coins, stones, and even shoes at the cops, harassing them. There is some debate as to this next detail, whether it was a rather butch lesbian or a transvestite that was dragged out of the bar and was struck by the officer which incited the crowd to full on violence. They began throwing bottles, trying to overturn the wagon, ripping out a parking meter to use as a battering ram. When the officers tried to force the crowd back, the rioters forced them to take refuge into the bar, which they then attempted to set on fire, and the crowd continued to swell in size, drawing in all sorts from the surrounding neighborhood. They formed a Rockette style kick line, pushing back against the reinforcements trying to force them to disperse. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the bar.
The riot continued for several more hours, the crowd eventually being dispersed by police reinforcements and riot control who freed the officers trapped in the bar. But the riot lit a spark.
Click here to see a video of riot participants talking about the Stonewall rebellion.
The next night there was another riot on Christopher Street, the crowd numbering in the thousands, consisting of not only members of the LGBT community but also anti-police activists and tourists. It was another violent protest, full of harassing local occupants and battling with the police who arrived to respond to the riots, and again did not end until 4 am. More riots occurred sporadically over the following few days, but eventually died out.
The Stonewall Riots are largely credited for sparking the modern LGBT rights movements. A year later on June 28, 1970 there was a parade for “Christopher Street Liberation Day”, becoming the first gay pride parade, and the following years saw Gay Rights organizations spreading across the country and the rest of the world.
See previous page – Before Stonewall
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